Julie Dicenzo: Southwest Neighbors for Clean Air

Hear how Southwest PA Neighbors for Clean Air group leader Julie DiCenzo became involved in environmental advocacy and how the Neighbors campaign has benefitted her and her community:

Julie: I graduated from The Ohio State University, School of Allied Medical Professions, with a B.S. degree in medical communications, and moved to the Washington D.C. area where I worked as a medical writer and editor with International Medical News Group (Rockville, MD) for many years.  I was the Cleveland Bureau Chief for 3 years and then the Pittsburgh Bureau Chief, and I traveled all over the United States covering medical conferences. I then went on to freelance and have continued writing and editing manuscripts, pamphlets, and websites.

My husband is a “yinzer” and we moved to Leet Township, PA in 1989 from Ohio.  My family then moved to Bell Acres in 2007 and we have several acres of land. So I have lived in the Sewickley Valley area for 30 years.

The happy “bubble” I was living in burst several years ago when a shale gas company landman was making the rounds trying to get folks in Bell Acres to lease their land for fracking.  The president of our newly-formed homeowners association was pushing our small neighborhood to lease all our land, including the 30 acres of wooded community property behind our homes.  I had to quickly educate myself about fracking to counter the arguments being thrown our way. Here’s what I was regularly told:  “Fracking is all a mile or so underground so you won’t notice a thing; everyone else is leasing so your gas is going to get sucked out anyway and you might as well get paid for it; just think of all the money you can make;” and on and on.  After several somewhat contentious neighborhood meetings, my husband and I and a few other neighbors were able to convince the rest of the community that leasing would be a bad decision.

In the meantime, our local newspaper ran an article about the Shell ethane “cracker” plant under construction in Beaver County—only about a dozen miles away from the heart of Sewickley—and it mentioned a local group called Communities First-Sewickley Valley.   I followed up and ended up joining that group, whose mission statement is to protect health, safety, and the environment in the Sewickley Valley area, and raise awareness about the Shell petrochemical plant and the effects of fracking on air and water quality and public health.

Communities First-Sewickley Valley has been partnering with the Breathe Project and its community collaborators.  Since I’ve been a part of Communities First, we’ve had many educational meetings on a variety of topics such as “What to Do When the Landman Comes Calling,” “The Shale Gas Industry and Our Health,” and “The Plastic Apocalypse.”  We’ve also been working with Food and Water Watch on a municipal ordinance project throughout the Sewickley Valley and beyond to strengthen local oil and gas ordinances and make them more protective.

Communities First has two types of air monitors set up in the heart of Sewickley and we’ve been working with Carnegie Mellon University and Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN) to collect baseline air quality measurements.  Once the Shell petrochemical plant starts up, we will continue to monitor any changes in air quality in Sewickley and compare these with the ongoing measurements in the rest of the network set up in the Ohio River Valley, the Pittsburgh area, and beyond.

Through educational meetings and community projects, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with the folks in the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community (BCMAC), Citizens to Protect the Ambridge Reservoir (CPAR), and Food and Water Watch.  What starts out as casually seeing and meeting people at meetings develops into stronger bonds of purpose– we are all allied together working toward the same goals of clean air and water and preserving the characteristics of our communities that make them unique and special to us.

Somewhere along the way I heard about the Clean Air Council Southwest PA Neighbors for Clean Air and was interested in what they do.  So I met up with Dave Smith at the local bagel shop and he was kind enough to “train” me and provide me with all the materials and support I needed to start a study group.     

What I’ve enjoyed most about the Southwest PA Neighbors for Clean Air is the feeling of empowerment—how small community groups can work at the grassroots level to help get residents involved, even if it’s just encouraging them to start going to their borough or township meetings.  I’ve come to learn that municipal ordinances are really where it all starts—even though it’s not a glamorous topic, local municipal oil and gas ordinances set the stage for what happens with fracking and the petrochemical buildout threatening our communities. It’s been a great feeling going to municipal meetings where residents have stepped up and made their voices heard—it’s really seeing democracy in action.  

For example, I started attending Franklin Park Council meetings when word got out that their council was considering signing a shale gas lease for Linbrook Park.  Some of the residents had been faithfully attending their municipal meetings for months and even years, and they were quietly working behind the scenes. They organized a larger group, held community meetings with impressive turnout, and ultimately they were able to stop their council from leasing those 80 acres of public park land for fracking.  Now they are working to further protect residents by amending an oil and gas ordinance that was put into play just last December.

Economy Borough is across the county line near my home in Bell Acres, I’ve also been attending their meetings and working with Economy residents who are trying to stop a local shale gas drilling company (PennEnergy Resources) from using their residential road as the access road to a drilling well pad.  Residents are also trying to persuade Economy Council that they need to amend their very permissive oil and gas ordinance, which allows surface shale gas drilling in areas zoned residential-agricultural–encompassing much of the land in Economy. The PennEnergy well pad already has its DEP permits and will be located less than 700 feet away from homes in the neighborhood of Orchard Estates.  Some residents and I canvassed there and in other nearby neighborhoods where nothing at all was known about the planned well pad. We distributed flyers and signs (thanks to Clean Air Council for the signs) and got folks to sign a petition.

With the guidance of Lisa Graves-Marcucci of the Environmental Integrity Project, a large group of residents was alerted and mobilized and they descended upon the next council meeting, making a big impact.  The crowd filled the room to capacity and overflowed out into the hallway—it was the largest crowd the council ever had at one of their meetings and I think it woke them up to take their residents’ concerns seriously.

When we discuss the unit each month at my Southwest PA Neighbors for Clean Air meeting, I am able to pass on to the group that these local actions can actually affect the big picture, which is often cast as a “David versus Goliath” situation.  There are so many groups and so many ways to become involved—you could find a meeting to attend somewhere every day if you wanted to, and your level of participation is up to you. My Sewickley group is small with typically only three or four of us, but my group members say they are now having conversations about fracking and the petrochemical buildout with their friends and neighbors—something that was never really talked about here before.  We all had been living in our bubble, mistakenly thinking that what was going on in Beaver County was “far away” and not really affecting us. In fact we are all breathing the same bad air, and in the case of the Ambridge Reservoir, many of us are also drinking water from the same source, a source now under threat from the Shell Falcon pipeline.

Hear how Southwest PA Neighbors for Clean Air group leader Julie DiCenzo became involved in environmental advocacy and how the Neighbors campaign has benefitted her and her community:

Julie: I graduated from The Ohio State University, School of Allied Medical Professions, with a B.S. degree in medical communications, and moved to the Washington D.C. area where I worked as a medical writer and editor with International Medical News Group (Rockville, MD) for many years.  I was the Cleveland Bureau Chief for 3 years and then the Pittsburgh Bureau Chief, and I traveled all over the United States covering medical conferences. I then went on to freelance and have continued writing and editing manuscripts, pamphlets, and websites.

My husband is a “yinzer” and we moved to Leet Township, PA in 1989 from Ohio.  My family then moved to Bell Acres in 2007 and we have several acres of land. So I have lived in the Sewickley Valley area for 30 years.

The happy “bubble” I was living in burst several years ago when a shale gas company landman was making the rounds trying to get folks in Bell Acres to lease their land for fracking.  The president of our newly-formed homeowners association was pushing our small neighborhood to lease all our land, including the 30 acres of wooded community property behind our homes.  I had to quickly educate myself about fracking to counter the arguments being thrown our way. Here’s what I was regularly told:  “Fracking is all a mile or so underground so you won’t notice a thing; everyone else is leasing so your gas is going to get sucked out anyway and you might as well get paid for it; just think of all the money you can make;” and on and on.  After several somewhat contentious neighborhood meetings, my husband and I and a few other neighbors were able to convince the rest of the community that leasing would be a bad decision.

In the meantime, our local newspaper ran an article about the Shell ethane “cracker” plant under construction in Beaver County—only about a dozen miles away from the heart of Sewickley—and it mentioned a local group called Communities First-Sewickley Valley.   I followed up and ended up joining that group, whose mission statement is to protect health, safety, and the environment in the Sewickley Valley area, and raise awareness about the Shell petrochemical plant and the effects of fracking on air and water quality and public health.

Communities First-Sewickley Valley has been partnering with the Breathe Project and its community collaborators.  Since I’ve been a part of Communities First, we’ve had many educational meetings on a variety of topics such as “What to Do When the Landman Comes Calling,” “The Shale Gas Industry and Our Health,” and “The Plastic Apocalypse.”  We’ve also been working with Food and Water Watch on a municipal ordinance project throughout the Sewickley Valley and beyond to strengthen local oil and gas ordinances and make them more protective.

Communities First has two types of air monitors set up in the heart of Sewickley and we’ve been working with Carnegie Mellon University and Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN) to collect baseline air quality measurements.  Once the Shell petrochemical plant starts up, we will continue to monitor any changes in air quality in Sewickley and compare these with the ongoing measurements in the rest of the network set up in the Ohio River Valley, the Pittsburgh area, and beyond.

Through educational meetings and community projects, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with the folks in the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community (BCMAC), Citizens to Protect the Ambridge Reservoir (CPAR), and Food and Water Watch.  What starts out as casually seeing and meeting people at meetings develops into stronger bonds of purpose– we are all allied together working toward the same goals of clean air and water and preserving the characteristics of our communities that make them unique and special to us.

Somewhere along the way I heard about the Clean Air Council Southwest PA Neighbors for Clean Air and was interested in what they do.  So I met up with Dave Smith at the local bagel shop and he was kind enough to “train” me and provide me with all the materials and support I needed to start a study group.     

What I’ve enjoyed most about the Southwest PA Neighbors for Clean Air is the feeling of empowerment—how small community groups can work at the grassroots level to help get residents involved, even if it’s just encouraging them to start going to their borough or township meetings.  I’ve come to learn that municipal ordinances are really where it all starts—even though it’s not a glamorous topic, local municipal oil and gas ordinances set the stage for what happens with fracking and the petrochemical buildout threatening our communities. It’s been a great feeling going to municipal meetings where residents have stepped up and made their voices heard—it’s really seeing democracy in action.  

For example, I started attending Franklin Park Council meetings when word got out that their council was considering signing a shale gas lease for Linbrook Park.  Some of the residents had been faithfully attending their municipal meetings for months and even years, and they were quietly working behind the scenes. They organized a larger group, held community meetings with impressive turnout, and ultimately they were able to stop their council from leasing those 80 acres of public park land for fracking.  Now they are working to further protect residents by amending an oil and gas ordinance that was put into play just last December.

Economy Borough is across the county line near my home in Bell Acres, I’ve also been attending their meetings and working with Economy residents who are trying to stop a local shale gas drilling company (PennEnergy Resources) from using their residential road as the access road to a drilling well pad.  Residents are also trying to persuade Economy Council that they need to amend their very permissive oil and gas ordinance, which allows surface shale gas drilling in areas zoned residential-agricultural–encompassing much of the land in Economy. The PennEnergy well pad already has its DEP permits and will be located less than 700 feet away from homes in the neighborhood of Orchard Estates.  Some residents and I canvassed there and in other nearby neighborhoods where nothing at all was known about the planned well pad. We distributed flyers and signs (thanks to Clean Air Council for the signs) and got folks to sign a petition.

With the guidance of Lisa Graves-Marcucci of the Environmental Integrity Project, a large group of residents was alerted and mobilized and they descended upon the next council meeting, making a big impact.  The crowd filled the room to capacity and overflowed out into the hallway—it was the largest crowd the council ever had at one of their meetings and I think it woke them up to take their residents’ concerns seriously.

When we discuss the unit each month at my Southwest PA Neighbors for Clean Air meeting, I am able to pass on to the group that these local actions can actually affect the big picture, which is often cast as a “David versus Goliath” situation.  There are so many groups and so many ways to become involved—you could find a meeting to attend somewhere every day if you wanted to, and your level of participation is up to you. My Sewickley group is small with typically only three or four of us, but my group members say they are now having conversations about fracking and the petrochemical buildout with their friends and neighbors—something that was never really talked about here before.  We all had been living in our bubble, mistakenly thinking that what was going on in Beaver County was “far away” and not really affecting us. In fact we are all breathing the same bad air, and in the case of the Ambridge Reservoir, many of us are also drinking water from the same source, a source now under threat from the Shell Falcon pipeline.